Opinion

The Great Debate

Reasons to miss the political bosses

CREDIT: Matt Mahurin

The late Democratic Senator George S. McGovern and today’s Republican Tea Party activists might not have a great deal to say to each other — they both represented their party’s extremes. For that very reason, however they have one thing in common: Their rise to prominence defied the wishes of their respective party’s establishment.

Forced to fling open the doors to their smoke-filled back rooms, party leaders no longer possess their once-vaunted power over the careers of would-be presidents, governors, county legislators, and even, yes, the occasional dog-catcher.

Into this political breach marches the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of big business, which recently announced its intention to campaign aggressively for mainstream, Republican incumbents faced with challenges from Tea Party members. The Chamber is hardly the only private organization looking to impose discipline and order over post-boss politics. Other groups are also seeking to do this, including Friends for an American Majority, a group of wealthy donors led by Paul Singer, a New York billionaire, and the American Opportunity Alliance.

This Republican chaos should look familiar to Democrats. They’ve been there, done that. Their command-and-control system broke apart in the 1960s, leading to McGovern’s 1972 nomination.

The Democratic Party’s remaining bosses vehemently opposed McGovern. They saw him as a certain loser, and, more to the point, an unreliable outsider. But thanks to reforms that made the nominating process more democratic, there was nothing the bosses could do as alienated young people flocked to McGovern’s insurgent candidacy. The bosses were right, however. McGovern ultimately suffered an historic loss to incumbent President Richard M. Nixon.

Of Christie and political vendettas

The art of the great American political vendetta was born in New Jersey, just a short drive – barring heavy traffic – south of the George Washington Bridge. There, in the town of Weehawken, on a majestic cliff overlooking the Hudson River, the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, shot and killed his longtime political nemesis, the former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in 1804.

Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss in the New York gubernatorial election a few months earlier and decided it was time to extract revenge in the most direct way possible. Luckily, for members of today’s political class, political vendettas are decidedly less violent these days. But they seem no less passionate.

The scandal that has now overtaken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has all the elements of an old-fashioned political vendetta — without firearms. The governor himself says he played no role in a reported plot to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse his re-election campaign. But emails and text messages from the governor’s friends and his deputy chief of staff make it clear that they wished to extract political vengeance for this slight – and were willing to suffocate a city with traffic to do so.

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